City of God
by Daniel West
If atheism is a new religion, where are its churches? Christianity has cathedrals, Buddhism temples and Islam its minarets, 'mega mosques' and now five-star hotels. Yet despite the rise of British atheism, its followers lack formal spaces for congregation.
Though atheism is anti-theological, its popularity doesn't diminish the human desire for collective assembly. Sports stadia facilitate communal euphoria or despair , art galleries present a chance for introspection and nightclubs are the ideal locale for musically (and/or chemically) induced rapture. But in an increasingly atomised nation where 'sofalising' is replacing socialising, do we need buildings for explicitly secular convocation?
Apart from a handful of humanist outposts like London's Conway Hall and Burlington House, atheism is confined to the margins of society . None of the curiously anodyne multi-faith rooms at UK airports and shopping malls contain atheist texts, despite bookshelves brimming with Bibles, Torahs and Korans. Atheists are even disbarred from sonic real estate, like the Today programme's Thought for the Day. In this context, a few public buildings celebrating high priests of rationality like Darwin or Einstein underline the UK's commitment to pluralism.
Like Manhattan's planned Park51 Islamic cultural centre, these proposed atheist HQs could combine public facilities such as swimming pools or libraries with rooms reserved for their core audience. Or like the mud mosques of Mali, they could be temporary structures rebuilt annually by faithless locals, forming a yearly referendum on atheism.
Alternatively, as dwindling Christian congregations vacate church after church in Western Europe – one quarter of Dutch chapels and monasteries are set to shut over the next decade – atheists could repurpose defunct houses of worship as symbols of a more enlightened laic age. At the very least this would save them from that other opiate of the masses: consumerism. Better, surely, to bask in the genius of Galileo's work than pray at the altar of Tesco.
If architecture is the embodiment of ideology, and ideology's popularity fluctuates, perhaps the most progressive solution for atheists would be to build nothing at all. As the 'Building that Never Dies' at this year's Venice Biennale hinted, unadaptable buildings haunt the societies they inhabit.
This conundrum of desuetude was raised at last week's Architecture Foundation symposium on faith and the city. Wasn't the Grand Canyon a more appropriate site for prayer than manmade structures, asked an audience member? But natural wonders like this are a far more fitting focus for mass atheist reflection. By embracing the impermanence of the sublime, atheists could circumvent the afterlife that burdens obsolete religious structures. But still cherish life's finite character, which is anathema to the religions it opposes. In contrast to architectural totemism, this (or more accurately there) could offer atheists an appositely realist salvation.